Obvious Child is a revolutionary film disguised as a rom-com. But that rom-com costume is a genuine one, both in its rom half and its com half, and that’s what makes Obvious Child such a winning—and important—film.
Extended from a 2009 short, writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s film revolves around Donna Stern, a fumbling Brooklyn standup comic who favors jokes about farts, vaginas and how she looks like the love child of Natalie Imbruglia and a menorah. But it’s a brand of scatological humor that (mostly) works, because Donna is free of airs and full of loopy charm. She’s played by real-life comedian Jenny Slate, known for appearances on Kroll Show and Bob’s Burgers, for the disarmingly cute stop-motion Marcel the Shell With Shoes On videos, and for being fired after dropping the F-bomb on Saturday Night Live.
Early in Obvious Child, Donna is unceremoniously dumped by her schlubby boyfriend in a dive-bar restroom—turns out he’s been shtupping her good friend. She then loses her job at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (which, yes, is a real store in the West Village). So, as any distraught 28-year-old would do, she gets sloshed with her gay best friend and proceeds to sleep with a clean-cut, boat shoe-wearing goy from Vermont. And then she gets pregnant.
Here’s where Obvious Child is radical, as frustrating as it is that a common, legal medical procedure could feel radical in any context. It’s a foregone conclusion that Donna will have an abortion. Even as she worries about how she’ll afford it, the decision isn’t labored or fraught. It’s Knocked Up with a shmashmortion that actually happens. But Obvious Child isn’t pushing an agenda: It’s telling the specific story of one young woman who had a reckless evening and isn’t ready to be a mother. There’s no hand-wringing, no moral posturing, no political soapboxing. It’s astonishingly, wonderfully refreshing.
What becomes the real driver of the narrative is if—and if so, how—Donna will tell the man who inseminated that egg. His name is Max (Jake Lacy), and he turns out to be kind and smart and quick-witted, even if he looks like he probably played intramural lacrosse at Dartmouth. He’s interested in turning the one-night stand into something more, and it’s in Donna and Max’s push-and-pull that some of the typical rom-com beats play out. But Slate and Lacy make for good company, and their dialogue is awkward without tipping into gag-inducing territory.
There are a few great supporting turns, including Richard Kind as Donna’s lovable puppet-maker dad. “Living is the best revenge,” he counsels her after the breakup. Polly Draper, meanwhile, plays the high-powered executive mother who’s not thrilled about her daughter’s chosen career. “You waste that 780 verbal on telling jokes about having diarrhea in your pants,” she tells Donna. Gaby Hoffmann, who will forever be enshrined in my memory as the weird, seance-obsessed girl in Now and Then, brings warmth to the role of Donna’s no-bullshit roommate.
Some viewers are likely to have conniption fits over the matter-of-fact way Obvious Child treats abortion, or even allege that Donna deserves this unwanted pregnancy because she got drunk and forgot how condoms worked. But Robespierre, who’s previously directed only short films, is too levelheaded to engage with such unjustified claims. Will Donna think about her abortion from time to time? Absolutely. Will she regret it? Absolutely not.
Critic’s Grade: A-SEE IT: Obvious Child is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.